Today’s stage of the Tour de France saw a clever win by Luis Leon Sanchez who attacked Peter Sagan just as the Slovak was riding one handed to eat some energy food. Behind the bunch took it steady on the Mur de Péguère, the steep slopes didn’t incite attacks. Instead the drama came from a section of road that was littered with nails, provoking a wave of punctures. This enlivened the racing but it was not good television. Instead of attacks, we got tacks.
The event has made the TV news bulletins in France. This isn’t the first time it has happened in the race. A century ago nails were almost part of a rider’s tactical arsenal and their appearance on the route of the Tour led to fundamental changes in the race.
In 1905 Réné Pottier was leading the Tour de France. He was declared roi de la montagne on the Ballon d’Alsace climb in the Alsace region, the first big mountain ever climbed by the race. But later in the stage a spectator had thrown nails onto the road and Pottier lost a lot of time, having to wait for his team mate Hippolyte Aucouturier to give him a spare. Pottier later crashed out of the race. Yet he returned in 1906 to win the race although the triumph was brief as he discovered his wife had an affair during his absence and hanged himself. Perhaps the original fragile climber there is a memorial to his achievement on top of the Grand Ballon climb.
The 1906 Tour de France was plagued by a series of incidents where spectators threw nails onto the road and only 14 riders finished the race. Labelled les semeurs de clous or “nail sowers”, they caused polemic in the newspapers of the day. It is not known whether the spectators were neutral or acting in support of particular riders and teams. The incidents caused great frustration to the race organisers, so much so that the following year riders were allowed to have a following car.
This change in the rules altered the sport forever. No longer were the riders self-sufficient but instead they could count on outside help. But it was far removed from today’s race convoy with two cars carry spare bikes and wheels per team and additional neutral assistance. Instead a century ago only a few vehicles followed and riders were split into two categories, coureurs de vitesse and coureurs sur machines poinçonnées. The vitesse racers were able to swap bikes and wheels in case of mechanical incident, whilst machines poinçonnées was a bike that had been stamped before the start and the organisers would check the bike at the finish to ensure it had not been swapped. Nevertheless, it marked a change. See mountain bike races today where riders still carry spares but in road cycling riders have full back up.
As we say today the back-up is not ideal. Cadel Evans punctured but the narrow road meant his team car was a long way down the mountain, stuck behind the dropped riders. It’s not the first time in recent memory this has happened. When the Tour of Flanders route was changed for this year, angry locals from Geraardsbergen threatened revenge with calls to spoil the race that now bypassed their town. In 2011 the controversial Giro di Padania – a race organised by separatist Italians – saw nails on the road too.
The motivation behind today’s destruction is not known but this is not a prank. The value of damage done to tubs and the cost of repairs this evening alone is substantial and this is before we know whether Astana’s Robert Kiserlovski crashed as a result of a flat. As the video clip from FDJ-BigMat below shows you can see the cause of the puncture in Thibaut Pinot’s wheel. Pinot had to take team mate Pierrick Fédrigo’s bike in order to finish the stage.
Can they catch the culprit? It should not be too hard given the crowds. It happened between the passage of the lead breakaway and the bunch and perhaps people up there spotted someone scattering the nails. With over 30 punctures reported, we can assume several handfuls were scattered and even if someone was using the old “hollow pocket” trick to drop them down their trouser leg onto the road it could not have gone unnoticed, especially given the amount of phones and cameras around. Some reports suggest there were two sections of road covered with the tacks.
The race was neutralised by Team Sky. There’s an unwritten rule that if someone suffers a misfortune and the racing is not going full speed then people will sit up to let the dropped rider return from their mechanical or crash. It’s subjective but in this case the riders were not racing hard and so there was every reason to sit up. By contrast when Jurgen Van den Broeck dropped his chain on the stage the Plateau des Belles Filles the other day Sky were already committed to driving the race so this was unfortunate for the Belgian but no reason for the others to wait.
Rolland took off on the descent and seemed to want to profit from this moment but he was not aware Evans being in trouble. He told French TV he had not heard about the problems behind and was annoyed to find journalists grilling him at the finish. We should give him the benefit of the doubt for now because remember the team cars were a long way back. The climb was so narrow that the cars were stuck behind the dropped riders – the same reason it took so long to get help to Evans – and so team managers did not know what was happening for some time, yet alone broadcast it over the race radio.
- Pech en slapstick: having said it was not good TV, there was one amusing moment, watch as team manager Jim Ochowitz slips twice in the ditch.